Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ride to Termas El Plomo

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Monday, May 15, 2006

The day before I travelled back to Curacaví to see the judge about the ticket, I set off for the Cajón del Maipo. Ever since I've had a motorbike, I've heard about the Embalse El Yeso and the Termas El Plomo, and how beautiful they are. I never went up on the XR 125; after the trip to Chillán in November I gained more confidence with riding on dirt roads, but despite this, it never really came about. Maybe I always started out too late: Cajón del Maipo looks deceptively close to Santiago, but the lack of petrol stations after San José de Maipo is something to be kept in mind.

The first poke at the Embalse was on a Sunday, motivated by frustration and with tarnished by a late start. I got to the Embalse, but by then it was nearly dark, and my headlight was aiming too low (adjusting it is a tedious task).

The trip back home was certainly interesting: no moon in the sky, and a headlight that cut off 5 or 6 metres ahead. I even left the road at one point, taking an alternative route for a few seconds.

But now, freshly-returned drivers license in hand, I set off for the Cajón, to do a proper ride.

It took me an age to get there, particularly due to the idiotic 50 km/h limit on Av La Florida and Av Las Vizcachas (two large, double-lane avenues). I detest that mediocre practice, favoured by some municipalities, of leaving the road signs in such a state that the lack of investment in their repair not only saves money, but earns some through traffic tickets.

Driving a vehicle in Santiago while obeying absolutely every single speed limit is a more complex exercise than one might imagine. You should try it some day. I don't mean driving under the 60 km/h limit imposed uniformly in all urban zones, but respecting all and every single sign that you see, during the whole stretch from it to the next one. You'd think that sometimes they "forget" to raise the speed limit again after lowering it to something like 35 km/h, once you are out of the zone that would merit a lower speed limit.

After a slow trip through the valley, looking at my rear-view mirrors constantly, I got to San José de Maipo. I filled the tank, and set off again. Eventually I got to the end of the dirt road, and that's where the dust started.

The washboard, gradient and dust made the first few kilometres quite frustrating. Also, given my lack of experience on dirt roads, the first few kilometres are those in which you have to switch mentalities, from the rigid and precise control you get on the asphalt, over to the constant swaying and motion you get on dirt.

After hearing and feeling how my rear wheel bounced on the washboard, sapping traction and effective power, I decided to adjust the rear suspension. I don't know anything about suspension at all, so I just left the compression damping on minimum, and didn't touch the rebound damping, mostly out of laziness, since the adjustment screw is harder to get at.

At some point there's an old abandoned mountain refuge complex. It looks quite military in its design and aesthetics, but there is nothing left to indicate what its purpose might have been.

The air got colder, and acquired that freshness that you get at altitude, that mountain feel. I was also starting to feel the subtle pressure in my head that altitude gives me.

The hills had those surreal colours that would seem to justify keeping them under a layer of snow half the year, as if to preserve their luminosity.

And I got to the Embalse El Yeso. The road that snakes around it is quite narrow and dusty, with a drop down to the water on one side, and the bare rock on the other.

After the Embalse, I carried on. I wanted to see where the road went, to see if I might find the Termas.

The road got narrower and more deteriorated. Some shadows hid ice, and some mud puddles were actually frozen mud.

Things finally opened up onto a flat valley, and the road disappeared. I guessed that it must cross the wode stony riverbed at some point, so I rode off in that general direction. It wasn't hard, and it was fun to see that I could just ride in a straight line, no matter what was in my way (water, rocks, earth, sand).

I took a small horse path up the side of one of the smaller valleys that opened onto the main one, and saw a car parked way down below, as seen in the next pic (how did it get here?).

I took that pic looking back down the valley, because I had only just managed to turn the bike around, after about 10 minutes of pulling, working the clutch and brakes and so on, sweating like a pig. The rocks had begun to get larger as I made my way up the trail, and there was a point where I was trying to ride over jagged pieces of rock the size of a shoe box. That's when I decided to turn around.

I came down, and finally got to the Termas. There were about 3 or 4 tents set up, some cars, a few jeeps, and I was told that some 3 other cars had just left. It would seem to be a popular destination. The water, at least where I stuck my fingers in, was not warm, but not freezing either. I guess something the temperature of a cold swimming pool is quite tropical for the Andes.

There were other routes that I wanted to explore, but the sun was setting, and I wanted to get back with some light.

I did half the road back in complete darkness, and though I had tried to adjust my headlight, it hadn't improved much. As I was coming down, I caught up with three SUVs. They were going fast and kicking up a load of dust, so the visibility behind them was almost zero. Due to their speed and the dust it was hard to get close enough to pass them, and when I came up to the first one, I waited patiently for a minute or two, but he made no effort at all to let me by. What's it to him? It's just a motorbike. It's not as if I were going to kick up more dust than he was already driving through. I nipped past him anyway, and once I was a bit further away, reflecting upon his stubbornness, I lowered my heels and dragged them on the ground. Now that really kicks up the dust :-)

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